Adventures in Ethics and Science

A couple posts ago I posed these questions:

What do you want lay people to have as part of their store of scientific knowledge? What piece of scientific knowledge have you found especially useful, or would you like to have if you don’t already?

Among other things, my query prompted this response from commenter tbell1:

I’m usually just a lurker here on science blogs, but I have a pet peeve about the use of the terms ‘lay’ or ‘lay people’ in reference to nonprofessionals in science. Doesn’t it just stink of religion? Am I the only one who hates the term? Can we generate an alternative? ‘non-professional’ is a mouthful, but can’t we just say ‘people’ or ‘the public’ or educated citizens or something?


First, to tbell1, thanks for delurking!

And now, what do we do about this terminology? “Lay people” does seem to have a significant residual religious connotation, as if scientists were part of a priesthood with access to sacred secrets. That would make everyone else what exactly? The flock? Those who had not gotten the calling to partake of the mysteries? Intellectual children?

That’s not really what we’re shooting for here.

The obvious problem with identifying non-scientists as “people” or “the public” is that scientists are also people and members of the public. (They live among you!) Similarly, to call a non-scientist a “non-professional” may come across as dismissive of the actual professions in which many of these non-scientists participate.

My impulse here is to go for something like “non-expert” (or maybe “well-educated human being”, although that’s a mouthful, too). But y’all are pretty clever; what do you think a better term than “lay person” would be?

(Of course, if you think “lay person” is exactly the right term here, I invite your defense of it!)

Comments

  1. #1 Ethan
    April 26, 2006

    Nonscientists?

    “The General Public”?

  2. #2 Mark Paris
    April 26, 2006

    It’s true that the first definition of “layman” is a person who is not a member of the clergy, but the second is one who is not a member of a particular profession or who is not an expert in some field (from M-W online dictionary). So layman or lay person sounds right. What better defense than that the word means exactly what you are trying to say?

  3. #3 Mike Dunford
    April 26, 2006

    Civilians? ;)

  4. #4 Fred J
    April 26, 2006

    Hi Dr. Stemwedel,
    I refuse to be called “lay people”.
    IMO most people who read these science weblogs know a heck of a lot about science. We non Ph.D’s are interested and come to non lay people like you for new information. Heck, i’ve known about SNP’s forever and wondered if monozygotic twins have different ones.
    non Ph.D Fred

  5. #5 SteveG
    April 26, 2006

    How about non-technicians?

    On the other hand, some of my single, scientist friends who have been finding it difficult to find a partner might contend that “layperson” is an appropriate antonym to “scientist”…

  6. #6 dogscratcher
    April 26, 2006

    Liberal artist?

    Aspiring empiricists?

  7. #7 coturnix
    April 26, 2006

    Interesting. I did not know about the religious meaning of the word. I only knew the second meaning from M-W. I guess that’s what happens when English is a second language and also, growing up in a non-religious society.

  8. #8 chezjake
    April 26, 2006

    I think perhaps we need two terms here. One would be for “John and Jane Q. Public,” referring to the population at large, including the vast hordes who’d never even think of reading this blog.

    Another useful term might be “the curious” — for those of us who may not have advanced educational credentials in science, but who are curious enough to read Science Blogs, look up terms we don’t know in Wikipedia, and are otherwise actively trying to expand our frame of knowledge and understanding.

  9. #9 llewelly
    April 26, 2006

    I’ll agree with Ethan: Non-scientists. It’s simple, clear, familiar, and emphasizes the relevant difference.

  10. #10 Thomas Winwood
    April 26, 2006

    This changing use of the term “lay person” or “layman” is merely linguistic evolution in action. The ecclesiastical connotation is an etymological sidenote, nothing more.

  11. #11 Lab Cat
    April 26, 2006

    When I am discussing audiences with my students I would use “The General Public” or that dreaded word (I am a food scientist after all) “consumers”.

    The problem with the terms nonscientists or nonprofessional, is that I am that person when a scientist from a different discipline is discussing their work.

  12. #12 Rob Knop
    April 26, 2006

    I generally use “general public” to describe people who are non-scientists.

    But I do think an important message of science is that anybody can be a scientist. Yes, if you want to make a meaningful contribution to advance the edge of knowledge in any given field, you need a lot of education and expertise to find out how far we’ve gone already. But the methods and ideas and tools of science are things that anybody can employ. It’s *not* a priesthood.

  13. #13 tbell
    April 26, 2006

    wow, I’m honored to have my comment spawn a new post, thanks.
    So, to add to my earlier comment, I basically dislike any metaphorical invocation of religion or religious institutions when refering to science. I understand that ‘lay’ is commonly used to refer to non-professionals, but this is an extension from its use to refer to non-clergy and whenever I hear ‘layperson’, I think of religion. Talking about scientific ‘dogma’, ‘doctrine’, ‘canon’, or sometimes even ‘heresy’, also gives me a rash, unless it is a deliberately ironic use of the religious metaphor. Maybe it’s just me…

  14. #14 Abel PharmBoy
    April 26, 2006

    My two cents after 15 yrs of giving talks at the university to folks both inside and outside: The least offensive and most inclusive term for non-scientists is “the public.”

    Yes, Janet, I agree that we scientists are part of the public, but we are manifold outnumbered in society by folks who don’t do science for a living. On my CV, my presentations are separated into “professional seminars” and “public talks.” And, to be honest, my public talks draw far greater attendance than my professional presentations. Despite many examples of the threat to science by fundamentalists in society, I am greatly encouraged by the thirst of the public for real science presented by real scientists.

  15. #15 Daniel Harper
    April 26, 2006

    First time commenting here or anywhere else on Scienceblogs. Personally, I don’t see the problem with using the word “layperson” to describe non-scientists, for it connotes approximately the same connection between scientists and non-scientists as between skilled tradesmen and, well, laypersons: i.e. “While the layperson may believe that changing the oil in one’s car is a difficult process, those trained in automotive repair find it very simple.”

    Of course there is a wide gradation of people who will fit somewhere between a degreed scientist and one who is completely unschooled in science, but this is merely an artifact of the world around us being made up of shades of gray that do not easily separate into black and white — something a biologist (or biology student like myself) should see intuitively.

    As for the perceived religious nature of the term, I believe the original meaning of the term “layperson” has been somewhat lost over the decades, particularly in regions of the US where Catholic and Catholic-like (i.e. Anglican, Episcopal) churches are not the norm — certainly Baptists and other sects that do not have educational requirements for clergy do not use the terms in the same way, if they use them at all. And of course this would hardly be the first term that derived from an original religious meaning to one that is somewhat different — anyone bother to look up the original meaning of the term “primate”?

  16. #16 Mark Paris
    April 26, 2006

    tbell, “layman” is not used metaphorically to mean a nonprofessional or nonexpert; it means that by definition. If you use terms like “the public” all it does eventually is change “the public” to mean lay people, so at some point we will have to come up with yet another term.

  17. #17 tbell1
    April 26, 2006

    Daniel: Perhaps you’ve found the source of my problem with the word. I used to be an acolyte in the Episcopal Church, and ‘lay’ simply has a much stronger connotation.

    I don’t really have a problem with the the use of ‘layperson’ in other professional contexts. It’s just that there is a fairly active campaign on the part of IDers and creationists to make science seem like like just another religous belief system and to downplay the differences by which a scientist arrives at (provisional) belief and the way religious people arrive at a belief.

    As far as word definitions go, as a ‘lay’ psycholinguist, I’d say that words don’t derive their meanings from the dictionary, they derive their meanings as well as their connotations from how they are used in context. The above discussion, and some discussion with my labmates has persuaded me that for most scientists who use the term ‘layperson’, a religious metaphor is not intended. Actually, I never thought that when scientists used the term that a religious metaphor was intended, I was just a little troubled by how non-scientists might interpret it.

  18. #18 llewelly
    April 26, 2006

    anyone bother to look up the original meaning of the term “primate”?

    The Christians adopted the term from Linnaean nomenclature in order to remind their members that even the most pious and respected religious leaders shared common ancestors with Orangutans.
    :-)

  19. #19 P.D.
    April 26, 2006

    I would never use ‘lay person’ to describe people who could not service their own car. If it were so used, I would think of it as a metaphor with the original religious meaning. When it is used to describe non-scientists, the original meaning is still there as a connotation– to me, anyway.

    The fact that scientists are members of the public for some sense of ‘public’ should not be an objection to contrasting scientific insiders with the general public. Scientists are members of the laity, after all, relative to bona fide clergy.

    Furthermore, the original question was what scientific knowledge ought to be known even by non-scientists. Whatever the answer is, it ought to be known by scientists as well– so there is no problem if ‘public’ were read to mean everyone rather than just non-specialists.

    And on top of that, Public Understanding of Science has become a fixed phrase that means the understanding of science that non-scientists have got; cf. Harry Collins, who uses the acronym PUS.

    One last thought: A mundane phrase like ‘ordinary folk’ would do fine in the context specified.

  20. #20 MT
    April 27, 2006

    The ignorati? Or maybe the precognoscienti?

  21. #21 Ben
    April 27, 2006

    I’d probably have to support ‘general public’ for those without a scientific background and public for everyone including scientists.

    My problem with lay person is that it usually implies someone who isn’t a specialist or scientist. But a professor in physics is more likely to be a lay person in a conversation about evolution then a biologist. But the professor really isn’t a lay person.

    Something else to consider. The readers of this blog are (almost) ALL interested in science at some level. The level of knowledge in this group is probably over if not well over that of the ‘general public’. One might want to use the term informed public for the readers of the blog. Thus making a nice closed semantic circle. Right?

  22. #22 Daniel Harper
    April 27, 2006

    [quote]Daniel: Perhaps you’ve found the source of my problem with the word. I used to be an acolyte in the Episcopal Church, and ‘lay’ simply has a much stronger connotation.[/quote]

    Indeed. I grew up here in Alabama, in a sort of nonchurchgoing vaguely Baptist background, so the first time I was ever exposed to the term “layperson” in the religious sense was in reading C.S. Lewis.

    [quote]I don’t really have a problem with the the use of ‘layperson’ in other professional contexts. It’s just that there is a fairly active campaign on the part of IDers and creationists to make science seem like like just another religous belief system and to downplay the differences by which a scientist arrives at (provisional) belief and the way religious people arrive at a belief.[/quote]

    I would agree, except… no one’s really putting up a fuss about it. Those religious groups that use “layperson” in the technical sense also tend to be those with no problem with evolution and (most of) modern science. Avoiding a relatively context-neutral term like “layperson” just because it _might_ provide fodder for anti-evolutionists to attack science is being a bit silly.

    [quote]As far as word definitions go, as a ‘lay’ psycholinguist, I’d say that words don’t derive their meanings from the dictionary, they derive their meanings as well as their connotations from how they are used in context. The above discussion, and some discussion with my labmates has persuaded me that for most scientists who use the term ‘layperson’, a religious metaphor is not intended. Actually, I never thought that when scientists used the term that a religious metaphor was intended, I was just a little troubled by how non-scientists might interpret it.[/quote]

    I’m an on-again, off-again regular at talk.origins, have spent a lot of time reading up on this issue on the Internet and in book form, have spoken to numerous anti-evolutionists in person, and have never seen anyone seriously argue that the use of “layperson” to describe nonscientists is emblammatic of the religious nature of evolution. (Although, come to think of it, that probably is a better argument than most of those I’ve heard that evolution is a religion…) The term is just so commonly used outside of the religious context that I can’t see it being a major issue.

    That said, “the general public” or “the non-scientific public” work just as well in many contexts. I just don’t think it’s such a big deal that we shouldn’t use the term layperson to describe, well, laypersons.

  23. #23 Monado
    April 27, 2006

    I would probably say “the general reader.”

  24. #24 potentilla
    April 28, 2006

    How about “non-specialist”? That leaves conveniently vague whether you mean “someone without specialised knowledge about science” or “someone without specialised knowledge of the part of science I am discussing”. So a professor of physics is a non-specialist in relation to evolutionary biology (probably).

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